Sunday, June 18, 2006

Diana Darling: Bali's Jane Austen

Preview of upcoming Bali Advertiser article...

Is it possible that we have a Jane Austen in our midst? Believe it! Diana Darling’s The Painted Alphabet, based on a Balinese tale, reveals a similarly luscious talent and a sharp eye for human intrigue. Using graceful economy and incisive wit, Austen and Darling are master novelists, joyfully exploiting the vagaries of human relationships, in a format that ends with all loose ends ever so neatly tied up. Enak!

Ubud’s Darling was part of the influx of hippies and artists who sought in Bali not just an alternate lifestyle but an alternate universe. The mystical culture of Bali has great appeal, but to some seekers, like Diana, it held the promise of discovering the unseen.

“We were temple-mad… scouting the island for good temple festivals… [meaning] that it had dancing or trance; otherwise there was no point in going. …I longed to go into a trance,” Darling writes in Bali Kini, 1998.

Although she owns up to having once been “the most ridiculous, obnoxiously pedantic Baliphiliac on the island,” her explorations have rewarded her. Today she exudes an air of wisdom and good humor, in her writing and in life. She’s sensitive to village ways, more than happy to live in a Balinese household, and counts Balinese elders as some of her greatest teachers.

Her first novel, The Painted Alphabet, named a “treasure” by Periplus, and “dazzling” by The New Yorker, deserves top honors in the plethora of books penned by those smitten with the island of the gods. A thrilling story of love, loss, sorcery, and triumph, Darling gently binds the reader in a spell using precise pacing, humorous and evocative descriptions, and an assured knowledge of Balinese tradition.

A strong thread of Hindu dharma is laced through the novel, especially the formula for propriety which is this year’s festival theme: Desa, Kala, Patra, the belief that identity is informed by circumstance. Perhaps the book could be described succinctly as a lesson for accepting change.

She’s got a second novel in the works, which she calls “a fictional account dealing with the history of tourism in Bali,” and, perhaps most exciting of all, she’s writing the libretto for an opera based on The Painted Alphabet. Bali is eminently suited to multidisciplinary creations. Some of the most memorable moments of the past two Ubud Writers Festivals were performances of songs and theatre.

“I’ve always wanted to see The Painted Alphabet as an opera,” Darling wrote to this reporter. “A friend of mine recently suggested that we develop it as a theatrical piece. I saw a lot of music in it, and finally the penny dropped: make it all music. The dialogue is necessarily very concentrated. It’s reduced to its lyrical essentials, which is a way I like to work.

“I envision a musical style that is very much its own and that delivers the requirements of the story and the verse in which it’s composed. Because the setting is Bali, we want certain Balinese musical elements, but not straightforward gamelan either. It will be very eclectic.

“As for the writing process, the idea is to think in songs, not in narrative. You have to find the emotional pitch of the moment that requires that this particular dialogue MUST be sung. There is room to indicate stage directions as well, and I have quite specific ideas of things I’d like to see in the production. There will be some use of film in different styles. But all this is in a fantasy stage right now: that is, getting the fantasy down on paper.

‘My understanding is that the libretto is the architectural structure on which the composer builds the music. No, we haven’t begun looking for a composer. I want to finish the libretto first, or at least have a complete draft, before presenting it to a composer. That’s only fair. Then of course I would like us to collaborate closely.”

Not without a touch of irony, Darling says that “my only requirement of the music is that it be exactly right and very beautiful.” Her stunning prose deserves no less.

Diana Darling was born in the USA in 1947, studying acting in New York and performing Off-Off-Broadway from 1970 to 1974. She lived in Carrera, Italy, carving marble (1974-80), and studied drawing in Paris (76-78). Moving to Bali in 1980, she soon married Australian filmmaker John Darling (until 1987) and is now married to A. A. Alit Ardi of Ubud. She’s been editor-in-chief for the highly praised Latitudes magazine, and has contributed essays to many publications on Bali style and culture. Alongside her personal works in progress, Darling has a day job as a copywriter.

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